“Why do you go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colors. And the people there see you differently, too. Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving.”
— Terry Pratchett
It’s hard to say exactly when this journey began. In a way, it seems inevitable now — an accumulation of a million individual decisions that led inexorably to this moment in time. Yet I have no doubt that if someone had calculated the odds of my eventually moving to France while I was sitting in third grade French class watching film strips of a Paris that I had never seen, they would have been astronomically against it. Thus it is with everyone’s life. Even as I continue to hedge with job applications and contingency plans, the odds are skyrocketing that this is going to happen, ticking down to the singularity of the day that I get on a plane and don’t come back.
I’ve done this before, moved to another country. Even though it was done under the protective cover of the U.S. government smoothing every rough edge, it was one of the biggest adjustments of my life. My mother never forgave me; my career never recovered. People (people who have never lived in another country — there should be a word for them, like muggles) didn’t understand why I would voluntarily rip my children out of their schools and transplant them to a place where they didn’t know the language or the culture, leaving behind everything American.
To my mother, my only answer was, this is your fault. We went to Europe the first time for summer vacation when I was four, and I never got over the wanderlust. From the destitute 20s into the career-driven 30s, there was no money or time for overseas travel, but I would still sometimes pull out the trip albums from those childhood vacations, yellowing sticky pages with fading pictures, and feel the pull of a world far away and different. It never didn’t ache. I got a bonus from work in 2003 that I promptly spent on plane tickets to Germany and Austria. Kids’ health problems delayed things, but on my birthday in 2008, we landed in Stuttgart for a six-year adventure in Europe with four kids in tow.
I say four kids, but there were actually three. My oldest from a prior marriage, who was 12 at the time and deeply into her first love, decided to stay behind. She eventually joined us and graduated from Patch American High School before going back to the States for college. There’s no doubt the mark that this foray in Europe made on all my kids — we managed 16 countries in our time there. They were woken up by the call to prayers in Istanbul; they ate borscht in St. Petersburg; they built sand castles on a topless beach in Italy. They were ruthlessly exposed to art. They ate foreign foods, sometimes gamely and sometimes not, and asked for the toilet in sign language. They have seen that there are different ways for societies to deal with everything from food packaging to health care to the way that immigrants are treated. They know what a parliament is and have seen multi-party political systems work. They know that not everyone speaks English, and that America is not the center of the world.
Eventually things changed and it was time to come home to America. It was a hard adjustment for everyone. The country was different; we moved back to a new state and it seemed like a foreign country. TV was different. We had British satellite tv while we were living abroad, and thanks to many hours of Top Gear, to this day my daughter calls a truck a “lorry.” The new people whose lives we dropped into didn’t really want to hear about our adventures. It was as if it were all a dream, and we were supposed to just carry on as if it had never happened. There was no doubt that we were all changed; we weren’t European and yet we somehow didn’t belong in America anymore either. I had made third-culture kids out of my children.
I went back to work and life carried on, but the ache was back, and it never left. I know it is the same for the kids, because sometimes at bedtime they get to talking about their favorite memories (What about the cows in our chalet in the Diemtigtal? Remember the duck we had for dinner in Budapest? Where was that glacier we hiked to? Remember the time we went sledding and I landed on your face and it skidded on frozen sheep poo and you had to go the hospital?), and we all go to bed and dream of the wider world.
Months slipped into years, and things continued to change. At the end of last summer, I quit my job in dissatisfaction at the peak of my career, and shortly after that, my mother passed away. We had always thought to move back to Europe after retirement, years from now. Something involving a postcard perfect alpine chalet and cows with bells around their necks. Yet, I wasn’t getting any job offers, and I started playing with the idea of going back sooner, like now. When I mentioned it to people (more muggles), the reactions that I got were of disbelief, usually accompanied by the sentiment, “I could never do that.” When my mom was dying, she wrote a poem with the line “in a life long on safety and short on risk….” She had her own reasons for the paths she took, and in my mind was very brave and made groundbreaking choices. But that was her own end-of-life assessment. Do I want that to be my epitaph? I could never do that? Middle age makes you look at mortality differently, and suddenly it didn’t seem to be a given that there would be a lengthy, leisurely retirement at some unspecified date down the road. My stepfather broke his back the day after he submitted his retirement papers and died. So. Carpe diem. On y va!
I think we’re at about T-4 months and counting to the move. It could be sooner or later depending on a lot of things. We went to France a week ago to view properties, and we’re going back unexpectedly in a couple of weeks because it is impossible to open a bank account in France without being personally present to meet your bank counselor. Stay tuned for more adventures in bureaucracy. Oh, did I mention that I don’t speak French?
Copyright 2018, Rachel Howard